Michael Bloomfield began playing in Chicago blues clubs while still in high school. By 1968 he was considered one of the best guitarists in the world along with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. By that time, Bloomfield had joined and left the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, played on Bob Dylan’s masterpiece album Highway 61 Revisited and formed the genre busting group The Electric Flag. Like so many other musicians, especially of his generation, he had also developed a taste for opiates and the relief they provide.
Michael Bloomfield died in 1981 on Valentine’s Day. Although the autopsy report was somewhat contradictory, he probably overdosed on fentanyl (sold mistakenly as China White heroin), which had recently made an appearance in the San Francisco streets. I was never a user of opiates, but friends of mine were. They talked about a new monster high that was like heroin but much more powerful. The only reason I was personally familiar with fentanyl was because a friend had almost died from it earlier in the decade after buying some in Washington, DC. Bloomfield was supposedly cleaning up his act, but like most users, he wasn’t done completely with narcotics. Unfortunately, he went back one too many times.
I had seen Bloomfield play in different venues since moving to the Bay Area and was always impressed. Sometimes his shows were so good I was left without words, only the ecstasy that otherworldly guitar virtuosity can create. Other times, they were just damn good blues/rock performances. The musicians backing him varied, depending on Bloomfield’s current emotional and economic situation. According to a new biography by writer David Dann, titled Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield’s Life in the Blues, that situation was quite fluid, especially in his later years. As noted above, Bloomfield first came to national notice as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and then as a guitarist on Bob Dylan’s album Highway 61 Revisited. Before that, he had been playing in Chicago blues clubs and taverns. Often, he was asked to sit in with some of the greatest names in the business—Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf were just two such musicians. Bloomfield’s talent was a known factor to record company people in New York and by the time he was nineteen, he had a contract with Epic Records. Biographer Dann chronicles Bloomfield’s rise and growing fame, intertwining his tale with his subject’s issues with his family and schools. The son of a wealthy businessman with a nice house in the Chicago suburbs, Bloomfield’s understanding of the blues was not from his upbringing like so many of his mentors and heroes.
Dann’s biography is more than a chronicle of Bloomfield’s life. It is also an ongoing discussion of his approach to the blues, his battles with bipolar disorder and substances he took to combat the disorder, and a unique look at the cultural mixtape that was the period called the Sixties. Dann deftly weaves the travels and travails of Bloomfield and his guitar into tales of free love and hippie ghettoes, LSD adventures and mishaps, racial strife and harmony, and the youth-led protest against the US war on the Vietnamese. It’s a fascinating travelogue through the times steeped in blues and rock music and musicians. The context is the music of the Black ghetto and rock palaces like the Fillmore West. While reading the book, I was reminded more than once of a song by the blues guitarist Muddy Waters that includes the lyrics “Well you know the blues got pregnant/And they named the baby Rock & Roll….” Michael Bloomfield was one of those who was present at the birth, if not the conception.
Without diminishing Dann’s stellar work in putting Bloomfield’s role in music and culture on the written page in vivid detail, it is important to emphasize that Guitar King is much more than a biography of his life. It is also a discussion of his approach to the music he mastered. Dann not only discusses the intricacies of the recording sessions of the recordings Bloomfield was part of, he dissects Bloomfield’s playing, detailing chord changes, note shifts and bends, key changes and tempo alterations. In doing this, the reader can almost hear the music in their head. Furthermore, these descriptions enable anyone who listens the performance being discussed in the text the ability to see what they are hearing and, if they so desire, attempt to replicate the Bloomfield style—a musical lesson in its own right.
Michael Bloomfield’s life was both tragic and jubilant. He played guitar with a swagger and confidence that belied his insecurities. In his playing he opened up possibilities that might never have been conceived without him. Those who ended up being considered greater than Bloomfield—Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, for example—acknowledged their debt to his revolutionary approach and his master musicianship. David Dann’s book Guitar King is voluminous in size—as befits a man whose contribution to modern music is greater than history has ever acknowledged. Drawing from his deep research and numerous interviews, it is clear that Dann put tremendous effort into this book. It is a biography that puts Bloomfield back into his rightful place on the roster of rock and blues greats. The result is a tremendous and magnificent work.